Interview: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner Talk CHARLIE SAYS

Charlie Says is a new film from Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, the director and writer behind the films American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page. Charlie Says takes a unique perspective on the Manson Family, telling the story of the infamous murders from the perspective of three of the women who were brainwashed by Charles Manson into committing such heinous crimes.

POPAXIOM got the opportunity to speak with Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, the director and writer of the new film. Charlie Says opens in theaters on May 10 and hits VOD on May 17. You can check out POPAXIOM’s review here.


On The Film’s Unique Perspective

POPAXIOM: Your film Charlie Says approaches these events from a feminist perspective. Why do you believe that this is an important view to take on the story?

Harron: Well, I was very drawn to Guinevere’s script because people really have not told the women’s side of this story. You know, it’s a story told so many times — the prosecutors have told their version, there have been many biographies of Charlie, but the process by which the young women got drawn into the cult and how they were gradually transformed under Charlie’s influence, I think has not been told. And we felt it was important to take on the story of the girls who were actually involved in the crimes. Basically, people have very little sympathy for them, but that doesn’t mean their story isn’t worth telling.

Turner: The project for me was kind-of about making them real people and making them individual people that are distinct from each other and making them not the monsters that everyone saw in the media. You know, the smiley, hippie girls looking all crazy when they’re going off to testify in court, but just sort-of real people who could be your mother or your sister who got sucked into bad things. Sort-of implicating the audience a little more, “de-othering” them, if you will. They weren’t monsters, they were people who were manipulated into doing monstrous things.

On Pushing Boundaries

POPAXIOM: The two of you have never shied away from controversy in your films. Why do you think it is important for film to start conversation?

Turner: I don’t know. I think all good art should start a conversation, right? And that’s what’s exciting. When you’re pushing buttons and challenging people’s assumptions and starting conversations, otherwise it would just be boring to do.

Harron: Yeah, I think in those cases, both with the Manson story and with American Psycho, and I also found this with my first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, people were like, “Why would you want to make a film about these awful people?” We’ve heard this quite a bit. “Why would you want to go into this world? Why would you want to tell this story?” Well that’s why. Because people don’t think you should.

On Connections Between Charlie Says and American Psycho

POPAXIOM: The two of you previously collaborated on American Psycho and now you’ve made Charlie Says as well. Both films evaluate the psychological aspects of a killer’s mind. What draws you to that type of story?

Turner: In some ways the comparisons between them… there are a few and then they wildly separate from each other in terms of, you know, obviously the tone, but then also… in a way, American Psycho is more talking about masculinity and in Charlie Says we’re really talking about how women can be manipulated. You know what I mean? They digress pretty quickly.

Harron: And actually men, because it isn’t just women in the cult.

Turner: Right, that’s true. Anyway, my point being, the movies are both about these monster men, but they’re exploring different things.

Harron: I think with Patrick Bateman, it has a horror movie element in that he is a monster, he is a deformed human being. And it’s slightly surreal that story. It is a fictional universe. But Charlie also is a deformed human being, but he was deformed by his… it’s hard to know what he could have grown up to be in other circumstances. He had an exceptionally horrible childhood. He grew up in the prison system. He was bullied, he was raped, and he came out the other end a very dangerous and manipulative person. He learned manipulation to survive.

Turner: There’s not a lot that was funny in Charlie Says.

Harron: Yeah, although we tried to squeeze a little humor out of it. But one thing that they both have in common is a complete lack of empathy for others, which is always a very dangerous thing in a person. And in some ways no center. You can’t really find the essence of them because they’re just a lot of manipulation and anger and impulse. They’re also a bit controlling. That’s another thing they have in common. They’re control freaks. Bateman is sort-of compulsive in the way he’s built. He’s compulsive about the order with his desk. And Charlie had like a billion rules at the Ranch.

Turner: Yeah, a total control freak.

Harron: But they can’t really function out in the real world, they have to try to create an artificially-controlled environment. It’s something, like, what would you call them — sociopaths, psychopaths, crazy persons — like to do?

On How Their Pasts Shaped the Film

POPAXIOM: Ms. Turner, you recently published an essay about your childhood. How do you think your experiences helped influence and shape Charlie Says?

Turner: They very much influenced it. It was part of the reason I was interested in tackling the subject because I thought with my own childhood that I could bring something to it that a lot of people couldn’t because I lived the day-to-day of that. That was one thing I really wanted to bring into Charlie Says is that it’s not all acid and orgies, and I’m quoting myself now from my own essay. Which is to say that when you live in a Family that there’s a kind-of mundane, everyday aspect to it that I think is kind-of important to show. And that also there’s beautiful, wonderful, magical days and then things can turn on a dime and become volatile. All of that is stuff that was real for me while growing up and that I brought into the story. It’s sort-of an indescribable texture, and Mary and I had already been friends for a long time, so she had already heard me talk a lot about my own upbringing, so she also had it in her brain in terms of approaching it as director.

POPAXIOM: Mrs. Harron, you began your career as a journalist. How do you believe this affects your approach to making films about true stories?

Harron: As a journalist, because I started in the punk era, it was a way of just exploring a world I wanted to be a part of, and I’ve always been interested in delving into subcultures and some hidden worlds that weren’t normally available to you, and the Manson Family is definitely a subculture. I think it made me very into research. Several of my films and TV work has been involved in recreating historical eras, recent history. And you know, I’m just really, really obsessed with creating the worlds. I enjoy that a lot, actually. And trying to make something historically accurate, both in the production design and the costumes, but also in the mindset and the way people talked. I think that this film is very good, that it really does get a feeling of what people were like, the way they talked and behaved in the 60’s, which is quite different mindset than now. And it’s important to remember that — how women thought of themselves, how men thought of themselves — it’s quite different.

Turner: That said, we were laughing the other day because we realized the most recent script we’ve written together that isn’t made yet is contemporary and we don’t have to deal with getting the period details right, and that’s kind-of exciting because really the attention to detail has to be flawless or if you don’t get it right, even a little bit, it’s all ruined.

On Making It in the Film Industry

POPAXIOM: The two of you have proven yourselves to be two of the most skilled and talented women working in film today. What advice do you have to aspiring filmmakers, particularly young women who are trying to make it in the industry?

Harron: Well I’d say get ready for a lot of rejection.

Turner: Yeah.

Harron: You have to be self-motivating. You have to be self-starting. As hard as that is, you have to get used to being turned down and failure and rejection. Eyes on the prize, meaning think about the project you really care about and keep going towards it, one step at a time.

Turner: Yeah, and for me, it’s about something I didn’t realize when I was younger and it’s that at the end of the day, you just have to work really hard. And keep doing it. I mean, the number of scripts I’ve made that have never been made into movies is a lot. And you know, I’ve gotten really close to having something made and then it all fell apart. To be able to be resilient like that is the name of the game and you just have to let go, you have to wait, you have to really want it bad.

Harron: Yeah, you have to want it bad and you have to not only work hard, you have to keep going when nobody is encouraging you. And try never to lose that. That’s what I meant by self-starting. Whether people want to hear them or not, whether people are going to finance them or not. The more you write and the more you direct, the more you get better at it. And it’s important just to work when you can and keep going. This is boring, but it’s true.


Be sure to check out Charlie Says when it hits theaters on May 10 and VOD on May 17!

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Sean Boelman
Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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